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What Diplomacy can teach Brand Stewards about Persuasion and Influence

After years of being in the advertising industry, in 2011 I shifted gears and joined the State Department as a Public Affairs diplomat. For many reasons, diplomacy holds its strategies and tactics close to the chest, so while I had some general knowledge of what diplomacy entailed and the type of work I would be doing, I didn’t know the specifics. The actual day-to-day was cloaked in mystery, and it felt like I would be undergoing a significant career change.

The truth about diplomacy is that it is multi-faceted and extremely complex, with a great many players working various overlapping methods, angles and tactics to achieve common end goals.  And here’s my caveat up front: I am not a career diplomat. I left the State Department for family reasons after serving two overseas tours. But during my nearly six years at State in a Public Affairs capacity, as I got into doing the actual work of diplomacy, I was surprised time and again to discover how much diplomacy is like branding.

At its core, diplomacy is about persuading your target market to align with your agenda through various tactics, including dialogue, negotiation, and other measures. And while there are many definitions of branding, my working definition is “a means to shape opinion, influence and persuade behavior.” Bring on the overlap: both require mastering persuasion and influence for success.

Diplomacy is like branding in many other ways, too:

  • You need an unwavering brand and vision. This is your North Star, and you’re constantly guided by it as you navigate the diplomatic matrix that involves the 180 countries the US maintains relationships with. Not to mention the bureaucracy itself, with its bureaus, special divisions and all manner of special-interest political projects – all having complex, vying-for-attention agendas and missions.
  • You need to earn trust and steadfast relationships with your target market – your foreign interlocutors, or counterparts; and also your foreign public.
  • You’ve got to deeply understand your interlocutor’s perspective, agenda and likely behavior – this goes for your foreign public as well.
  • Who are the tertiary players? What are their agendas?  How could they interfere with you achieving your goals? You need to know your competitive landscape.
  • When advocating for your agenda, you must articulate your key selling points in a clear and concise manner that informs, influences and persuades your interlocutors and also your foreign public. Note: You’re focused on the benefits.
  • You need creativity to influence and persuade. Many times you’re persuading not just your interlocutors but the foreign public, and dry diplo-speak doesn’t cut it.

Wait. Foreign public?  Most people think diplomacy is about negotiating with interlocutors and that it happens on a 1:1 basis, and yes, that is true; but in my experience, diplomacy is often made more effective when you’ve galvanized a public behind your agenda. As an example: while serving in Sri Lanka in 2012-14, one of our goals was to push the government of Sri Lanka towards transparent elections. Privately we met with members of Parliament and government to ensure our objective was heard. But we also built momentum for fair and free elections at the grassroots level. We hosted country-wide events about fair and free elections; invited experts on U.S. elections to speak about how our election system works, inviting criticism and candor; we moderated panel discussions with prominent social and political figures; wrote op-eds in popular newspapers; held debates at universities around the country; engaged actively on social media; hosted US Presidential debate and election parties; and did numerous other tactics to keep our message top of mind. When the results of the January 2015 Sri Lankan Presidential elections came in, over 81% of the population had voted, and importantly, according to election monitoring organizations, the election itself was clean and fair.

The work that diplomats do to inform, influence and persuade a number of external audiences: that’s the work of Public Affairs, and I feel many of the tactics used in Public Affairs are worth exploring because they are effective, budget-conscious and creative (gasp!). I’ll cover a few of these in a subsequent article.  But for this piece, I’ll shift to focus on something else I noticed diplomacy does really well: the Long Term Play.

I won’t speak for all aspects of diplomacy, but in Public Affairs, you’re in the business of building mutually-beneficial relationships for decades. You don’t think in the short-term; there is no transactional give-get. You’re interested in building deep and multi-faceted relationships that embed you in their business and them in yours. Every initiative is seen as an investment; every effort goes through a how does this strengthen / grow / build our relationship? line of questioning.  Here’s why:

  1. Leverage. When you invest in a country you’re inextricably weaving your economic, political, social and civic agendas together and there are now strategic incentives to align and cooperate.
  2. Mutual Success. You support your partner and have an interest in seeing them thrive and prosper – wonderful. But you aren’t the Fairy Godmother, either; you also need to win. When you’re invested in a client you make decisions that mutually benefit both of you, which means you bring your smarts to the table. Your money’s on the line.
  3. Credibility + Connection. Committing to a long-term partnership lends credibility and integrity to your mission. It says you’re committed to your partner for the long haul, and that you’re not going to suddenly bail or have a change of heart. It forges a stronger and deeper connection and extends your credibility.

The takeaway: shifting to a long-term strategy for your clients is not only smart, it’s a key differentiator for success. If you’re already approaching your clients this way: brilliant. It’s such a huge advantage, particularly in the B2B space. For those still caught up in the transactional and focused only on answering the client brief: get beyond the brief. Imagine its 2030, and you still have your same clients; what type of work will have sustained your relationship? What type of work will you have done to guarantee your client’s success?

As brand stewards, we need to think bigger and deeper, not only for our sakes but to better help our clients. How can and should we invest in our client’s business to better help them succeed? How can we help them live into their values more fully?  How do we help our clients become better brand stewards themselves, in the process making our work bigger as well?

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Juliana Spaven is a serial brand strategist and marketer with over 20 years of advertising and marketing experience.  In 2011 she joined the State Department as a Public Affairs diplomat and served in Sri Lanka (2012 – 2014). She was awarded the Embassy’s prestigious Meritorious Honor Award for her work in promoting Freedom of the Press to the Sri Lankan public. She also served in Frankfurt, Germany (2015-2016) where she received awards for her teamwork and professionalism as Vice Consul. She left the State Department in 2017 and currently lives in DC with her family, where she works to make brands magnetic.